Imagine news without people. That’s what the House of Lords could create — really

Johnston Press Sussex Editor in Chief Gary Shipton presents a bleak future for local journalism — which could become a reality all too soon if the House of Lords gets its own way.

A copy of a local weekly newspaper — it could easily be yours or mine — lies on a desk in a London office with huge swathes of content censored in thick black ink.

In a scene reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984, barely a tenth of the original content remains — and that only the safest, least controversial news in brief with not a single name or face of a reader on view.

But this is no nightmare work of fiction.

It’s a shadow which hovers over all newspapers. Including yours.

The exercise has been carried out by our colleagues at the News Media Association — the association which represents local and national newspaper publishers across the land — and is designed to illustrate the potential ruinous impact of the Data Protection Bill currently awaiting its Report Stage and Third Reading in the House of Commons.

Quality regional newspapers and their websites like the ones we all work on, are packed with stories about people.

Often these are reports celebrating individual achievements or promoting events to improve the lives of us all.

Successes at schools, fundraising initiatives, and individual tales of triumph over adversity not only bring out the best in us — they encourage and inspire everyone around us.

The House of Lords could do serious damage to journalism locally

Of course, much of our journalism is also designed to defend, investigate, challenge and protect — especially the most vulnerable in our society.

But a clause, introduced first in the Lords, then rejected at earlier stage in the Commons, and now threatened with reinsertion, would have the effect of all but outlawing news involving people.

The Government has pledged to keep the clause firmly at bay, but with a wafer thin majority it is vital we all continue to lobby our MPs — especially Labour, the SNP, and the DUP.

Currently, those who would rather readers didn’t know what they were doing can challenge us through the courts but their claims will make little headway because of the journalistic exemption, known as Section 32 in the 1998 Act.

But this new clause should it gain Royal Assent, would leave publishers facing the very real risk of picking up all the costs of such an attempt to gag us — even if our reports were entirely compliant with the legislation and utterly in the public interest to report.

The threat of having to pay both sides costs — no matter how ludicrous the challenge — would have the chilling effect of leaving journalists questioning every report that named an individual or included the most innocuous data about them.

Just like the exercise with the censored local newspaper, our pages would turn blank of real news overnight — only the dullest and most tedious and anodyne of reports would get through. The public’s right to know would have been terminated.

You may wonder why the Lords have taken us to this democratic precipice.

The reason is a curious mixture of ignorance and politicians’ attempts to try to force a free press effectively under state-sponsored control.

First the ignorance. Members of the House of Lords — and sadly some elected representatives of the Commons too — simply do not seem to understand how a modern newspaper operates.

They appear to have no comprehension of how a tiny newsroom on a vital local title produces its journalism — nor the terrific financial constraints that they work under in a digital age.

More than that, they do not seem to have grasped that in a global internet context — where social media and non-newspaper publishers are entirely exempt from all this meddling — that their focus is in entirely the wrong place.

Instead, they continue to pursue the press to sign up to a regulator approved under a Royal Charter scheme cobbled together in a great rush by politicians of all parties reacting to the phone hacking scandal of nearly a decade ago.

They forget the world has moved on. 99.9% of newspapers in this country never hacked phones nor did anything illegal. Those that did have paid a hefty price and have been dealt with by the criminal and civil courts.

The respectable British press will never succumb to such tactics. The principle at stake is too important for this and all generations. We must remain truly independent if we are to fulfil our public role.

Apart from which, Royal Charter style regulation would come complete with a mandatory arbitration and compensation scheme that would bankrupt most small papers — and an untested get-out clause for them would be too little and far too late.

So no. We remain free of interference — instead voluntarily subjecting ourselves to some of the toughest regulation in the world from the Independent Press Standards Organisation and its Editors’ Code of Practice.

But critical to all our journalistic futures is maintaining a strong journalistic exemption in all data protection legislation and ensuring no-one with something to hide ever has the opportunity to blackmail us into silence.

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